Conversation: Sasha Abramsky

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance writer and a senior fellow at the Demos institute, a New York City think tank. His first book, "Hard Time Blues" was published by St. Martins Press in 2002. He is the author of the recently published "Conned" (The New Press, 2006).

Abramsky’s latest book, “Conned,” is a political travelogue around America, looking at how disenfranchisement is undermining the country's political institutions and democratic culture. (For more details see the book's website or Abramsky's website.) In it, Abramsky writes of his travels from the Pacific Northwest to Miami, talking with activists trying to fight felony disenfranchisement laws and those that would strengthen or extend them.

One state Abramsky visits is Montana, where felons can vote but often don’t, due to institutional misunderstanding and virtually no voting education for the state’s felons.

Here’s an excerpt from Abramsky’s chapter on Montana, “Sent to Prison for Cooking Sausages.” In the chapter, Abramsky had dinner with Kalispell felon disenfranchisement opponent, Norman DeForrest. During the meal, DeForrest, outlined who he thought should have the right to vote: people who spoke English, who knew the Constitution. Of felons, he said the majority are “liberals and Democrats,” and accused the Democratic Party of courting anyone who would vote for them, “including illegal immigrants.” He said the Democratic Party was in thrall to “eco-Nazis” who had “infiltrated” the Forest Service, and he railed against a school system that “…dare[d] to lump European civilization in the same category as African civilization. ‘The word Africa and civilization is an oxymoron to me.’” To sum up his feelings on the vote, DeForrest said, “’I don’t want people voting who don’t know anything about what’s happening.’” Abramsky:

It would be easy to dismiss [felon disenfranchisement supporter Norman] DeForrest as nothing more than a nasty misfit; and, after sitting through an hour and a half of his tirades while eating dinner on my dime at an overpriced and eminently mediocre restaurant, I was more than ready to do just that. I felt dirty and wanted to rush back to my motel room and take a long shower. But then I realized that, while DeForrest was an anachronism – his stated views anathema to the modern mindset, his explicity justifications for limiting the franchise deeply offensive to most modern theorists of democracy – his views were fairly much in tune with those of the Southern leaders and their Western sympathizers who had carefully crafted the disenfranchisement codes back in the post-Civil War years. De Tocqueville wrote that free societies always have, at their heart, a great divide between those who want to maximize popular power and those who seek to restrict it. “As one investigates more deeply the innermost thoughts of these parties,” he scribbled, “some are seen to be pursuing the restriction of public power, others to widen it.” De Forrest was clearly on the side of the restrictors, his views closely aligned with such illuminaries as the authors of Alabama’s 1901 state constitution. According to the historian Andrew Shapiro, and others, the felon codes from this period were specifically designed by postbellum Southern politicians to bar blacks from the ballot box. Indeed, in 1901, John Knox, the politician presiding over Alabama’s constitutional convention, publicly stated that the aim of such provisions was to help preserve white supremacy without directly challenging the constitution of the United States.

In a sense, dining with Norman DeForrest as he discussed voting rights was like getting a behind-the-scenes view of an elderly dowager as she prepared her wrinkled, sagging face for public display. DeForrest was inadvertently giving me a glimpse of the views that shaped the policies and priorities of a previous era, and his defense of disenfranchisement laws was, in fact, arguably the most honest, bare-bones rationale for the continued existence of such laws that could be made. For, in the end, once all the intellectual wriggling was over, how else could such laws be defended other than through a broad-based philosophical attack on the very principle of universal adult suffrage, on the very notion that all adults have, as a basic right, the right to participate in the political process that governs their lives?

Could you tell us a little about your new book, “Conned”? How did you go about writing the book? What’s the premise? Where does Montana fit in?

I interviewed hundreds of people – from politicians through to lawyers, from activists through to prisoners and ex-prisoners – about the topic.

It is, I believe, a powerful and little-understood problem: in essence, about five million adult citizens are now legally prohibited from voting – even if they live in the community as law-abiding citizens, pay taxes, have jobs etc. Most are from economically impoverished backgrounds; a huge proportion are also black or Latino. These are demographic groupings likely to lean more toward Democrats than Republicans. In a period of time in which national elections are determined by tiny margins and when most indicators suggest the country is split almost right down the middle on an array of policy choices, the removal of such a large percentage of the country’s potential voters cannot but have had an impact on elections ranging from the local up to the presidential.

That doesn’t mean, though, that this should be a partisan issue. At its heart, it’s about rights, and about the negation of political rights experienced by a large, and growing, number of people. For that reason, I’d hope that anyone interested in politics and ideas of democracy would be interested in this issue.

In terms of the Montana issue, the problem faced in the state, where individuals CAN vote once they leave prison, is largely one of misinformation – of officials either neglecting to inform ex-prisoners of their right to vote upon release, or of giving them the wrong information, and of a powerful swirl of street rumor that promotes the myth of permanent disenfranchisement statewide.

What got you interested in this subject? And where has it taken you? Personally, I'd imagine I'd be terrified of hanging out with a bunch of ex-cons to do the story, but I guess that's also part of the problem, this fear we have of people who have been convicted of crimes. Could you speak to culture of fear surrounding crime?

I got interested in the subject in 1999, when I started reading data on the numbers disenfranchised, and in particular on those disenfranchised in southern states, including closely fought ones such as Florida. Where has it taken me? Well, if you’re talking geographically, all over the country; the states are detailed in my book. Basically, I started in Washington and zigzagged my way east, ending in Florida. In terms of talking with ex-cons, or present prisoners, it depends on the person. Some, obviously, are less approachable than others. On the whole, though, the interviews are like most other interviews I do; a series of questions, a series of answers. The institutional setting, conducting interviews inside prisons, is frequently quite intimidating, but, with time and practice, you get somewhat used to it.

In recent elections, it was said that Republicans used felon lists to help disenfranchise potential Democrat-friendly voters. Did your research confirm this? is this a common tactic used by the Republican Party?

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say Republicans are deliberately disenfranchising, wholesale, potential Democratic voters through use of the felon lists. This might well be the practical outcome, but I’ve not uncovered a grand conspiracy to deliberately target Democrats. The closest you could come to this would be in Florida, and there the disenfranchisement was certainly somewhat capricious – though it’s not quite as straightforward as a saying it was an out-and-out party political purge.

Could you describe what happened in Florida? What happened exactly? What was the reason behind it? Was it ideological or political? And more importantly, how can communities ensure that political parties in the future don't disenfranchise non-felons by putting them on the felons list?

What happened in Florida was a combination of incompetence and, I would argue, political opportunism. The state’s Republican leadership realized that existing disenfranchisement laws could tamp down the vote, especially the minority vote; and history has shown lower voter participation generally benefits the Republican party. At the same time, they realized that the existing laws weren’t being fully enforced – people were registering to vote despite felony convictions. They hired a series of companies to “scrub” the voter rolls of illegal voters; however, the databases used didn’t really produce accurate results. Consequently, thousands of people who, in reality, hadn’t been convicted of felonies were still sent letters saying they were being removed from the voter rolls.

Obviously it’s a far more complex story than this – and my book goes into the details in a more nuanced way. But this is the gist of what happened.

How can communities avoid this kind of situation in the future? First off, the laws themselves need to be re-examined; second, even if the disenfranchisement laws remain, states should use much more stringent matching criteria in determining whether or not registered voters are, in fact, felons. The burden of proof should rest with the state, not with voters who are told they have to suddenly prove their eligibility to continue voting.

In the chapter on Montana, you interviewed a conservative activist in Kalispell – Norman DeForrest – who wants the state to deny felons the right to vote. That was a fascinating scene; in it, you outlined beautifully a case for letting felons vote. Can you sum up why people don't think felons should vote, and why you think they should have that right?

Some people argue felons should be restricted, to varying degrees, in their voting rights because they’ve transgressed the social or legal code, and thus can’t be trusted to participate politically without “polluting” the integrity of the system. Others argue they should have to in some way prove that they are redeemed. Still others worry that felons might in some way group together and form a “felonist” bloc.

I would argue the costs of denying millions of Americans the vote outstrip any possible benefits that might accrue by having them disenfranchised. It undermines the culture of political participation and it weakens the institutions of democracy – which, in modern times, we take to mean, at least in part, “universal adult suffrage.”

What do you think the cause of the misinformation in Montana is all about? Is it institutional and malicious? Or do you think it's just a pervasive idea that can be countered?

I’d tend to think it’s mainly not malicious – while some correctional and parole and probation officials may well be only too happy to not have ex-cons participate politically, I think on the whole it’s just that this is an obscure part of the law and it’s one that hasn’t had the attention paid it that it so richly deserves. There’s also a large problem of street rumor, since many convicts either come from other states, or simply aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of Montana’s voting rules. Since so many states DO disenfranchise, it’s easy to see how rumors circulate that a felony conviction means banishment from the political process.

What effect does this misinformation have in Montana, do you think?

Given that Montana, like most other states, has seen a vast rise in incarceration and in the numbers accruing felony convictions as a result of the war on drugs, in particular, it’s certainly possible that close election results are skewed, one way or another, by disenfranchisement, or perceived disenfranchisement. More intangibly, I’d argue the very culture of political involvement, nationally, has been undermined by so many people either being genuinely disenfranchised or disenfranchised via rumor.

First…regarding your conversation with DeForrest, you said his views were an "anathema to the modern mind," insinuating that his views belong to a previous time. Based on my experience, it seems that there's a greater push to exclude people from the voting franchise. A number of conservative-leaning politicians and pundits oppose any legislation that would increase voter turnout — same-day registration, for example, or early voting. And in the wake of the recent immigration scuffle, I've seen people advocate disenfranchisement — or lengthy waiting periods — for naturalized citizens. Are these trends increasing? Or only becoming more transparent? How much does racism have to play in these efforts? I've read some interesting reports that claim racism is becoming mainstream political discourse again (most notably, again, in the immigration debate). What's your take on the felon disenfranchisement and racism?

I'd say that while racism has been by no means eliminated from our society, it's rare to hear a political figure espousing the kind of views de Forrest adheres to. In a sense, racism has gone underground, expressing itself through social policies that have an indirectly race-based impact. And, yes, while many political figures and their constituents are avowedly skeptical of the notion of restoring the vote to ex-felons, their arguments tend to be more subtle that de Forrest's; they talk about making ex-cons "prove" they've rehabilitated themselves, prove they're trustworthy to participate in political decision-making etc.

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